Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Questions (15, 16)

Jack Wall


143 Mr. Wall asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the outcome of his meeting on 1 December 2003 with the British Minister for Energy, Mr. Stephen Timms, to discuss concerns regarding the Sellafield plant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2889/04]

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Martin Ferris


147 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the steps, including diplomatic and legal steps, which he has taken since June 2002 to bring about the closure of Sellafield; the number of occasions that issue has been raised with the British in diplomatic talks; the details of the response of the British when the matter was raised; if the Government intends to use the State's presidency of the EU to further that goal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2970/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 143 and 147 together.

Since June 2002, the Government has taken significant steps to bring about the closure of Sellafield, in accordance with our commitment in the agreed programme for Government. That policy objective has been advanced through separate legal actions, under the OSPAR Convention and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The OSPAR tribunal, in its award on 3 July 2003, established that Ireland has a right under the OSPAR Convention to access information on the marine environment, that the UK has an obligation to make such information available, and that Ireland has a right of redress under the convention to vindicate its rights to such information.

The provisional measures award and orders of the UNCLOS tribunal of 24 June 2003 and 14 November 2003 recommended that Ireland and the UK enter into dialogue to improve co-operation and consultation between the two Governments and report to the tribunal on specified dates. Complex discussions confidential to the tribunal and the parties pending outcomes are ongoing in line with the obligation on both parties to improve co-operation and co-ordination arrangements. While progress is being made, it is at a measured pace, and it is too early to speculate on the outcomes to the discussions. However, it is my intention to make public as appropriate any agreed improvements in those regards arising from that process.

Since June 2002, I have also represented the Government in various meetings with my ministerial colleagues in the UK. I represented Ireland at the third meeting of the British-Irish Council, environment sectoral group, on 16 January 2003, the agenda of which included the issue of radioactive waste from Sellafield. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, attended a further meeting of that group in October 2003.

On 7 January 2003 I wrote to Michael Meacher MP, then Minister for the Environment, outlining my concerns regarding the proposed decision by the UK Environment Agency on future discharges of technetium 99 from Sellafield. In response to pressure from the Government, the UK agreed a moratorium on discharges to conduct trials into a chemical process that, if successful, would increase the feasibility of storing that waste product in a safe form on land rather than discharging it into the Irish Sea. I understand that the results of those trials are expected shortly. I will continue to press for the complete cessation of those discharges into the Irish Sea, and I will consider the outcome of those trials in that context.

On 28 May 2003, I met the then UK Energy Minister, Brian Wilson MP, in Dublin to reiterate the range of Government concerns about Sellafield, including the continued discharge of technetium 99, the role of the proposed nuclear decommissioning authority, and the storage of radioactive waste at Sellafield.

On 24 July and 26 August 2003 I wrote to Mr. Wilson's successor, Mr. Stephen Timms MP, concerning media reports about the structural integrity of a waste storage facility at Sellafield. Mr. Timms responded that the UK regulations had been concerned about the longer-term integrity of the facility for several years and had instructed BNFL to carry out necessary structural surveys and engage in close monitoring of the building.

I have previously placed on the record of this House an exchange of correspondence with the Secretary of State for Trade and industry, Patricia Hewitt MP, about the inadequacy of security at Sellafield. Following media reports last August about the closure of THORP by 2010, I again wrote to Ms Hewitt to seek clarification on the matter. She confirmed the existing UK policy that any new reprocessing contracts for THORP would require British Government approval and would be subject to public consultation, during which the Irish Government could make its views known.

On 1 December 2003, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, I met the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Ms Margaret Beckett MP, and Mr. Elliot Morley MP, Minister for the Environment, in London, while later the same day the Minister of State also met Ms Hewitt and Mr. Timms. We discussed the issues of access for the RPII to Sellafield, technetium 99 discharges and the structural integrity of storage buildings at Sellafield. The UK Ministers acknowledged the concerns expressed by Ireland on those issues, although they do not share them. However, both sides indicated a willingness to engage under the terms of the UNCLOS tribunal orders and at all levels in a constructive approach to those issues.

As well as contacts with ministerial colleagues, my officials and scientific experts from the RPII continue to meet their UK counterparts regularly, during which Ireland's concerns regarding operations at Sellafield are raised. Such contacts continue to be productive. Indeed, I believe that, largely as a result of Ireland's legal actions, there has been increasing recognition among relevant UK authorities of the serious concern of the Irish Government and people. However, there remains a significant difference of views regarding operations at Sellafield. The UK response to concerns raised by Ireland is that operations at Sellafield are safe and do not adversely impact on the environment. This Government holds significantly different views and has at every opportunity expressed those views directly to the UK Government and its relevant authorities at all levels. The Government will not hesitate to explore further options regarding Sellafield as they become available.

Regarding Ireland's EU Presidency, while it would be inappropriate to pursue a national agenda, there are currently two proposed directives, which together comprise proposals for a nuclear safety package, under discussion in the European Council's atomic questions working group. Those will, if adopted, provide an EU-wide set of standards regarding nuclear safety and waste management and disposal which will apply in all member states including the UK. The Irish Presidency will continue, through dialogue, to seek and develop consensus on the directives.